The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
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Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

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Cookie Day!

Here’s a really easy riddle for you: what can you make with 6 1/2 pounds of butter, 12 pounds of flour, 29 eggs, and 3 pounds of sugar? Answer: A hell of a lot of cookies and a lot of happy friends, coworkers, and neighbors.

Who wants a cookie?

In case that wasn’t clue enough, this past weekend was Cookie Day (or really, Cookie Weekend), which has been an annual tradition since before I can remember. When I was growing up, my mom and her friend Connie would pick a day in December and there would be Baking-with-a-capital-B. Over the past 20 years, Cookie Day has seen 6 homes and pretty much every major life milestone–and I couldn’t be happier that I brought at least a small part of it with me when I moved to Chicago.

Recipes and lists

Lists are essential

Now, let me be clear: this is no two- or three-hour deal with one or two batches of your holiday cookie standards. I don’t say that out of some kind of misplaced pride or egotism, but to set the stage for the sheer amount of baking that is involved. During Cookie Day’s heyday, there had to have been more than 3 dozen kinds (that’s not 36 cookies, but 36 kinds of cookies) at the end of the day. And since nearly every recipe was at least doubled, if not tripled…I can’t even guess how many cookies that would be.

Fig-date swirlsPistachio-orange crescents

But oh, does it make for the best memories. There was the time trays of cookies were being shoved, hot, into trunks of cars because a) there was probably no other flat surface on which to cool them, and b) it was so late and everyone was so tired that it was unimaginable to do more than that. There was the year that we opened tins to start boxing up cooled cookies only to discover cookies leftover from the year before (thankfully well-preserved, if very stale). Or the year of the unfortunate reindeer turd cookies–at least they tasted good!–or the year of the florentine mishap.

Cookies

Some things have never changed with Cookie Day with my mom and Connie: mimosas always start the day, with a break for sandwiches and chips for lunch. Someone will always choose an overly-complicated new cookie recipe for the end of the day and end up swearing up a storm. Someone will inevitably put a dough in the refrigerator to chill, thinking “Oh, I’ll remember what cookie that’s for” and will have no idea three hours later which of the now five chilled doughs belonged to which cookie.

My mom will always make butter horns, Connie will always make rugelach, my sister Laura will always decorate the “pizza” cookies, and my sister Erica will show up at the end of the day to eat the butter horns and ask what she can take (but we love her anyways). And I will always be the pecan-tassie-maker and the unwrapper of Hersey’s Kisses and chocolate balls for peanut butter blossoms and “surprise inside”s–three tasks that I now happily pass off to my unwitting, yet very patient, friends. There have to be perks to hosting my own Cookie Day, you know.

Helping hands are essential

Helping hands are essential

But beyond the masses and masses of sugar and flour and butter and chocolate and nuts, I love my friends who have joined me over the past few years for the baking extravanganza, and helped me create my own version of this tradition.

Treat box

Mulled wine or glogg has been the beverage of choice for the past three years, cheese and crackers for snacks. I still choose at least one overly complicated recipe, forget which cookie dough is which, and swear at midnight on Sunday that next year I’ll make two cookies and that’s all! (I’ve said that for 6 years, hasn’t happened yet.)

Boxed and ready to give away

What are your holiday baking traditions? Any other baking over-achievers–do we need to start a support group?

Cookie Day 2012 Recap

Types of cookies: 14, plus hot chocolate mix and marshmallows

  • Anise-almond biscotti
  • Fig-walnut biscotti
  • Peanut butter blossoms
  • Thumbprints (raspberry, grape, and apple-lemon)
  • Pecan tassies (a double-batch, god help me)
  • Chocolate-espresso crinkles
  • Rugelach
  • Raspberry meringue bars
  • Grasshopper bars

New this year:

  • Fig-date swirls
  • Pistachio-orange crescents (Cut-outs, filling, AND fussy timing? What was I thinking? They were delicious and quite popular though)
  • Chocolate-orange biscotti
  • Spice buttons (Never would have done the frosting and sprinkles, thank god for friends and co-bakers!)

Total number of cookies: 660, not including bar cookies or ones sacrificed for “taste-testing”

Best new recipe: Tie between adding espresso powder to my usual standard snowcap/crinkle recipe and a totally new pistachio-orange crescent (which I will never again make for Cookie Day, as they broke several of my cardinal rules, not least of which is no cutouts, complicated fillings, or overly fussy timing).

Grown-up tastes

Every year around this time, it would come in the mail. My dad would grab it from the box on his way in the house, a non-descript brown paper package, but I knew what was hiding inside by the unmistakeable handwriting on the outside, just waiting to be uncovered.

Anise Almond Biscotti

My sisters and I would tear open the wrapping to find a festive holiday tin. We’d pop open the lid and there, wrapped in layers of wax paper, still cold from their journey from Ohio to New York, were my grandma’s annual Christmas cookies.

My favorites then were a three-way tie between pecan tassies, with their layer of crunchy sugar hiding nutty, molasses-y insides; buckeyes, an Ohio specialty of a ball of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate to resemble its namesake; and these chocolate cookies with a maraschino cherry hidden under a coating of chocolate frosting. There were other choices in the tin too, of course: soft, cakey cookies topped with sugar glaze and multi-colored sprinkles, peanut butter blossoms, maybe some pizzelles if they managed to survive the trecherous journey intact. And of course no gift of cookies from an Italian grandmother–from my Italian grandmother–would be complete without biscotti.

Anise Almond Biscotti

I never got the appeal of biscotti then. They weren’t really sweet; you risked cracking a tooth if you didn’t eat them patiently, waiting for them to soften in your mouth or a cup of coffee; they tasted…different. Anise, as I learned, an acquired taste and one not often acquired by kids who were more interested in chocolate or sugar frostings. They certainly didn’t look like a kid’s cookie–craggy oblong slices, broken up only by small flecks of aniseed, austere in the grand scheme of holiday cookies.

Anise Almond Biscotti

But my dad loved them. He would eat them on Sunday mornings with his once-weekly cup of coffee while my sisters and I made quick work of the rest of the treats. I would munch on one or two as long as I could dip them in hot chocolate, but only if all my other favorites were gone.

Anise Almond Biscotti

Since then, my tastes have grown up. Biscotti have become one of my favorite cookies for the holidays, one of the few that end up in my own private cookie stash once the rest have been gifted away. As with my issues with mass-produced muffins, these are not the biscotti you find at most coffee shops.

The licorice flavor of anise is the highlight, they’re just sweet enough for my tastes, and, while you won’t risk cracking a tooth like really traditional biscotti, they definitely have a crunch (and I personally like them best after a few days to really dry out). This time of year, they’re my favorite Sunday morning treat with a strong cup of tea–or, even better, an afternoon treat with a cup of hot mulled wine while I’m baking up more holiday goodies.

Anise Almond Biscotti Continue reading